A Yankee Circus on Mars
Animals roller skating or dressed as airline pilots make me sad, and human beings walking on a wire at great heights or diving into tiny buckets of water fill me with terror, but no delight. A circus-themed childhood nightmare involving frothing alligators, sequined ladies, a sinister jar of pickles, and…well, the mere thought of it even today makes my heart freeze.
No circuses for me, therefore, most definitely not.
How to explain, then, my passion for circus art? For what Einstein was to physics, so is circus art to the art of the poster.
The announcement in the New York Times of an exhibition at the Bard Graduate Center The Circus and the City had me on the phone in an instant to the painter Frédéric Lère.
Apart from supreme distinction of having three accents in his name, Frédéric has quite a pronounced circus theme in his work, not to mention a French trapeze artist grandfather. A few days later we were standing together at the entrance of 18 W 86th street.
Well, not exactly together. We waited for each other for 20 minutes at a distance of about six feet, one so absorbed in the catalogue (me) and the, other unable to resist taking a peek into the first room and then transfixed as if before the Oracle at Delphi (Frédéric), that neither of us were able to perceive the presence of the other, even as we both wondered whether we hadn’t gotten the time or the day wrong. The spell was broken only when we, almost simultaneously, pulled out our cell phones, and looking up as we waited for the first ring, found ourselves gazing into each other’s eyes.
Frédéric lives in a fantastic world of esoteric and astonishing facts peopled with extraordinary personalities whose lives defy not only social convention but occasionally the space-time continuum. A stroll through a sequence of rooms whose walls are covered with images of regally bearded ladies and 3-ton golden carriages rolling through Union Square finds him in his element. He is also a rare craftsman with a deep knowledge and keen appreciation of the technical mastery required to produce an article such as The Grand Procession of the Steam Calliope Drawn by a Team of Six Elephants in the City of New York, the details of which he is delightfully willing to share.
A lengthy discussion of registration, wood blocks versus metal plates, paper shrinkage and conservation, the fading properties of ink, or not…time stopped as a magic spell wrapped me up in a moment I would have liked to go on forever.
Then we stopped in front of this, which reminded Frédéric of something. It reminded me of something, too. “Maybe it wasn’t just a dream…” I thought, and the hair on the back of my neck stood up in a braid.
Fortunately, Frédéric was talking, and I tore my thoughts from the abyss reeling before my mind’s eye to give him my full attention. When with Frédéric, this is best. He speaks quietly and quickly, and if you let your mind wander for even an instant, when you come back you will find you have completely lost the thread.
“A while back, when I was going to Moscow a lot for work, I met a girl who ended up marrying the pal I worked with. They eventually moved here. Little by little, she brought her whole family over.
“Her sister married a guy who had an alligator farm, and they went to live in Florida. She started doing a show in which she fought with an alligator. ”
At this point he had to stop to laugh at the mental image of the sister of the pal’s girlfriend in a bikini combatting an alligator, a laugh made of equal parts delight, astonishment, and maybe a little sadness.
“It’s incredible, these people who come here wanting nothing more than a normal life. All she wanted was to escape the Hell that was life in Russia for a quiet, ordinary existence, and she ends up in Florida fighting alligators…
“She was a very unassuming kind of person…in a room full of people, you wouldn’t notice her. She had a couple of kids… Over the years I’ve sort of lost touch with them. I think we’re Facebook friends.”
And he laughed again, shaking his head.
A few weeks later, I met Frederic at his studio, where he was in the middle of creating an enormous wall mural for La Bergamote’s new shop in Midtown. He was on a terrifically tight deadline, so I brought lunch.
“French Dip. That’s a first.” he said, taking a bite.
“Do you know why it’s called that?” I asked. “There’s nothing like it in France, as far as I know.”
“Nothing,” he agreed. “Maybe it’s the baguette?”
He picked up a small paper bag lying on the table where we had spread out the sandwiches.
“The people downstairs make extraordinary chocolate, he said, picking up the remains of a bar. “This is chocolate à la bergamote. I’ve managed to hold on to this, three squares, for two days–we’ll have it for dessert.
“It’s an old story, the story of bergamot, it’s very bizarre. Attempts to export these bergamot candies were never successful. They’re a specialty of Nancy. The Duke of Lorraine, Stanislaus, was the King of Sicily as well–or the Duke, or something like that– he introduced the bergamot fruit into Nancy. So the pastry chefs of Nancy developed a recipe for bergamot candies. But the problem is, they never exported it; even in France it’s not well known outside the region where Nancy is, the Lorraine.
“Anyway, these two French guys came here, and opened a pastry shop. They named it La Bergamote thinking everyone would be very impressed, but it was a bit of a flop at first.”
“Where do you come from in France?” I asked.
“And how was that?”
“Profoundly boring. I detested it. When I lived there I had only one goal: leave Tours.
“When I was in art school, I lived with a group of friends in a kind of collective in the center of town, in a building that was slated for demolition.
“In this building there was a doctor’s office–everyone else had been put out–and the owner was trying to get the doctor to leave. There was a lease, and the doctor didn’t want to go.
“So the owner posted a classified ad at the art school ‘Free apartment for rent.’ Wow! When I saw that, I went to valium check it out immediately! And it really was a free apartment. We paid only the electricity, heat, things like that.
“The owner thought that we, being artists, would make a lot of noise and be generally obnoxious, and drive the doctor out. We, on the other hand, realized right away that if we made the doctor leave, we’d have to leave too, so we mustn’t make noise or be a nuisance. We became great friends with the doctor, and we had parties only on Saturday and Sunday, or late at night when he wasn’t there.
“It was a magnificent apartment.”
“My grandfather was born in Paris, he started in the circus very young–he must have been around sixteen– in 1914. Apparently this circus was a hit, and the whole troupe was hired to tour the United States. They came over on a boat, and since this was 1914, during the crossing war was declared. When the ship arrived in New York all the French passengers were told to remain on board, they weren’t allowed to disembark; they had to return to France with the ship because everyone was being called up, it was the mobilisation générale. My grandfather watched his colleagues jump overboard and swim to shore because they didn’t want to go back to fight. But he didn’t jump, thinking that since he was so young he wouldn’t be called up right away, and the war would be over before he was drafted.
“So he returned to France without ever setting foot in the United States.
“But he was called up, and he was in a battalion called the Bataillon de Joinville, which was just for athletes. They didn’t go on combat missions, they just did sports–competitions and demonstrations, things like that–until the Battle of Verdun when they said, the time for fun and games is over! Now we need everyone. He was wounded, he took a bullet in the head. He had a scar, a kind of indentation, on his forehead. And after that the trapeze, it was finished for him.
“After the war, since he was from the Auvergne, which meant the whole family was in show business, he opened a boîte, a place like a cabaret or a nightclub. He performed there, and of course he had all his connections with circus people. Then, during WWII, when everyone fled Paris, he went to Tours. After the war he stayed on, and set up again there.
“When I was growing up, we all lived together, on a farm. My grandparents lived in a big house behind ours. It was wonderful. I didn’t get on with my parents very well, so I was always going to stay with my grandparents in their big old house behind our house.
“One day my grandfather bought a gymnastic apparatus with a trapeze, knotted cords, rings, smooth cords–everything for practicing circus numbers. It was an enormous thing. He said, ‘Now I’m going to show you all what I know how to do.’
“He got all dressed up in his trapeze costume and climbed on the apparatus where he struck a few poses, he did a few pirouettes–and then he fell.
“No one ever used that apparatus after that–we were all afraid of it.
“Because of that experience, I had a rather ambivalent perception of the circus. My grandfather talked about it as something absolutely fantastic, with all his stories of voyages and things he’d seen, but in fact, all I ever saw of it myself was the dangerous side.
“The first circus in my own work came about when I was doing frescoes. I found the process of fresco painting so dangerous, I said to myself I must paint something really dangerous to express the danger of the fresco itself, so I painted circus performers, always in poses of delicate equilibrium.
“In fresco painting, you have up to five hours to paint, and after that it’s over, finished! You can’t correct or add anything. The fresco is done. Everything that is wrong, well, it’s there–all the flaws are there, right along with whatever came out well. It’s a real balancing act. You start at one end of the cord, and you walk on a wire across the whole distance of the circus. And if you fall, well then, you fall.
“For La Bergamote, I made a wall mural for their first shop in Chelsea. I liked what they did, but I felt the decor was a bit… cheesy. I felt they needed something a little more French, more traditional –because it’s really traditional and authentic, what they do.
“The most important thing, when you go into a place you like, is that if you can contribute to making it nicer, that in itself is the best reward.
“Then they opened a second boutique on 52nd Street and they decorated it in the same non-descript style as the first one. After only two years the decor was falling apart, so they had to completely redo the place and they asked me to make a new mural.
“Here you have chariot crossing the Place Stanislaus in Nancy, making the first delivery of the bergamot from Calabria.*
“Remember this image of the horse and carriage in the exhibition? I thought it was such a gas, I absolutely had to take that for the point of departure of my mural.
“Instead of the orchestra, here I have the pastry chefs who toss bergamot candies from the chariot into the crowd. And the two people driving the chariot, are, of course, Romain and Stephane, the owners of La Bergamote.
“When I paint, what I want to achieve is not, ‘Look at me, I’m so gorgeous,’ but to express an action.
The arrival of the bergamot in Nancy is on permanent view at La Bergamot , 515 West 52nd Street. The FREEvolous King Lère Show is a public art installation which has been traveling around the world and on the web since December 2012, when it launched at Cup Cake Café. Since then, Frederic has given several small free-standing reliefs of circus scenes to friends who take them around the world.